Straight Talk: Michelle Mason, President and CEO, ASAE

October 19, 2021

Like many of her colleagues in the industry, Michelle Mason “stumbled” into the associations field more than 20 years ago via a temporary staff assistant role at the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council). 

“I really didn’t know much about the industry but as I began to learn on the job, I realized that this is a very diverse sector, it focuses on community and serving people, and associations really have a huge societal impact and improve our quality of life,” she said. “That’s when I knew I was destined to be a life-long association professional.”

Fast-forward 20 years later, and this award-winning champion of the profession boasts a resume filled with leadership roles at a host of leading organizations, including president and CEO of Association Forum, managing director of strategy and innovation at the American Society for Quality and vice president of strategic and future focused research programs at the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), where she assumed the helm as president and CEO Sept. 1.

TSNN had a chance to check in with Mason to hear what it’s been like starting such a prestigious leadership role during a pandemic, how she and the organization are weathering its lingering storm and where she’s headed once the world completely reopens for international travel.

What is the biggest change your organization has had to navigate during this challenging time? 

I’m only about a month and a half into the job, but change has been the name of the game for associations during the pandemic. That certainly includes ASAE. The COVID crisis obviously necessitated some agility on the part of associations to figure out new delivery channels for the content and learning that our members value and need to be successful. At the same time, ASAE is beginning to implement a new three-year strategic plan that will help us reimagine our next chapter of impact and growth. That is a lot of change to manage, but it’s exciting. 

How do you believe associations like yours will be most changed by the COVID crisis going forward?

I think the pandemic has taught us to always be forward-thinking and looking out for the next business opportunity. We are also constantly evaluating all of our products and services—and anything else that qualifies as an expense of resources—to gauge what we can de-prioritize in this new environment. Our self-assessment needs to be continual, even after the dangers of COVID-19 are brought under control.

How will ASAE’s meetings and events look different going forward?

A key piece of ASAE’s new strategy is becoming a digital-first organization. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing in-person conferences, but it will mean taking more of an omni-channel approach to the way our members connect and learn within ASAE, where some in-person offerings will be reimagined for virtual formats that can be streamable and on-demand and still foster the sense of community that our members crave. This creates some opportunities for future engagement of a wider audience if we can invest now in the right tools to keep us ahead of the demand.

I’m excited about ASAE really being that learning-focused professional entity for association leaders where we are sharing best (or effective) practices with each other and not trying to go it alone. ASAE should be the place where you can go as an association leader, learn about what has worked well for others and then be able to take that home and apply to your own organization.

Are virtual and hybrid are here to stay for ASAE?  

We’re planning for most of our major meetings on the horizon to be hybrid events, enabling some in-person interaction with a virtual component to allow for inclusion of participants who find digital access to be most valuable to them. We are excited to be face-to-face as well, and we’re planning some larger-scale, mostly in-person meetings next year. Our 2022 Annual Meeting & Exposition in Nashville next August is expected to be primarily an in-person experience, although I know the lessons we learned this year will undoubtedly influence the final event design for that meeting as well.

What have you learned most about yourself and your teams during the pandemic?  

That I am more resilient and open to change than I realized. It is important to show grace and appreciation in the moment. Tomorrow is not promised.

The staff teams I have worked with have really proven to be resilient and adaptive to extraordinary circumstances. There’s a sense of community in this industry and a desire to share information and learn from each other that can really help us weather the circumstances created by this pandemic. We’re all going through similar challenges. If ASAE tries something and it works—or it doesn’t—that’s something we want our members and our industry colleagues to see and learn from.

What kind of self-care has been key for your mental health during these past 19 months and why?

Self-care over the past 19 months is central to my mental well-being because it keeps me balanced. I have been very intentional about connecting with others and leveraging my support network to check in. It has been important for me to keep moving through exercise and other sorts of physical activity to stimulate my thinking and improve my health for a better quality of life. Most importantly, I nourish my mind and soul with positive affirmations knowing that this too shall pass.

Where is the first place you want to travel when the world fully opens up and why?

Barcelona. I started the planning process before the pandemic. It would be nice to finally travel there to enjoy the experience!


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